Death by Email

Love it or loath it, email is here to stay. According to the Radicati Group, during 2010 around 294 billion emails were sent every day with estimates for 2012 being even higher.  Although the vast majority of this is believed to be spam, which most of us are protected from by today’s excellent spam filters, the volume of emails that make it through to our inboxes is still so great as to be a cause for concern.  As a CEO friend of mine once said “If I attended to all the emails I receive then that would be all I would have time to do.”

The point is that the volume of emails has become so great that most people have to be selective as to which emails to read and which to ignore – for many of us it is no longer possible to both be effective in our jobs as well as responding to each and every email.  The purpose of this article is therefore to offer some suggestions as to strategies you might adopt to deal with your own email challenges.

Develop an email policy

It never ceases to amaze me that very few companies have user policies for email.  I suspect this is because email has generally been seen as a free communication medium by many senior executives therefore, if it doesn’t cost anything, why worry about it?
The reason to worry is that email is far from free.  It is certainly true that the marginal cost of sending an email is close to zero, but the real cost is hidden.  Have a look at your own inbox and see how many unnecessary emails you have.  Then work out how much time you need to spend dealing with those unnecessary emails.  Now multiply that number by the number of employees in the company, by the frequency with which you would receive similar emails and finally by the average cost of an employee in your organisation.
To get a true picture of the hidden cost of mail you should then add on the opportunity cost of the things people could be using that time for if they were not busy dealing with unnecessary emails.  For most large organisations the numbers are quite frightening, which begs the question, what can they do to improve email efficiency?

1. Timed delivery
The advent of the Blackberry and other smartphones has resulted in email being regarded by many people as a form of instant communication.  Whereas email began as something to replace the post, faxes and internal memos, it is now being used as a replacement for the telephone or, worse still, a replacement for face-to-face conversations.
To avoid this, companies could set their mail servers to deliver anything other than high priority emails on just a few occasions each day, in much the same way as the internal post used to work.  With a bit of will-power, you can do this yourself regardless of the company’s policies.  For example, why not switch on your email first thing in the morning and then close it down once you have dealt with the important items.   Crispin White made a similar suggestion in his item ‘Kicking the Email Habit’ and described the positive impact this approach had in their organisation.

2. Set up rules
Most email systems allow users to automatically file or categorise emails depending on a range of criteria. For example, you might like to set your email system to categorise emails from your boss one way and emails from people that work for you another. 
Most email systems also enable you to set up folders and automatically move emails from your inbox to a particular folder.  For example, if you are working on a particular project, you might want to move all emails related to that project to a particular folder so that it is easier to isolate the time you spend working on the project, rather than dealing with emails relating to it at the same time as dealing with other emails.  To make this easier, agree a codename or number that you include in all project-related emails.  You can then set up the rule in Outlook or Google Aps based on that codename.
Finally, you might like to set up a folder for emails you are copied in on.  I always did this when I worked in large companies as I found that the majority of emails I received were not sent to me specifically.
By routing those emails to a separate folder I kept a copy in case they were ever needed, but otherwise never look at them. My reasoning was that if it was important for me to read it, the sender would have sent it ‘to’ me. Interestingly, in all the years that I did this, I never once needed to look at any of those emails!
If you do get copied in on a lot of emails, you might also like to use the automatic reply feature to send a standard email to the originator telling them that you do not generally read emails that you are copied in on and therefore, if it is important that you see it, could they please resend it with a covering note summarising why it is important.

3. Holidays
If you receive a lot of emails, returning from holiday to a full inbox is no fun. My suggestion therefore is that you set up a rule to divert all mail received while you are away to a separate folder and leave an ‘out of office’ reply message explaining that you will have too many emails to deal with when you return from holiday so, if their email was important, ask them to resend it with the word “urgent” at the start of the subject line.  That way you will be able to deal with those emails as soon as you return to work while ignoring the rest.

4. Multiple addresses
In the same way as you can use the functions of your email system to file or colour code your emails on the basis of who they are from, you can also sort them on the basis of who they are to.
Therefore, why not ask your IT department to provide you with a separate email address to give to customers. Highlighting these emails would then provide a simple way of drawing your attention to the most important emails first.
By way of an example, I know of one very senior businessman who does this. He has a separate email address that is completely anonymous in that it is simply a sequence of numbers. He only gives this out to trusted friends and senior customers and, as a result, he is able to very quickly identify the emails he responds to first.

5. Reply to all unwanted emails
The temptation with unwanted emails is to simply delete them. But that does nothing to address the problem. Instead I would urge you to politely reply to the sender thanking them for sending it to you but pointing out that you didn’t need to see it. If you encourage your colleagues to do the same, the hope is that the originators will eventually be so swamped with ‘thanks-but-no-thanks’ responses that the penny will drop.

6. Use the phone
We all moan about the number of emails we receive, but have you ever questioned the number you send?  I generally find that the people who receive the fewest emails are also the people who send the fewest.  So why not become one of those people by phoning people instead of emailing.
Someone who tried this recently told me is wasn’t working as the email culture was so strong that even after a conversation people would still ask to have their conversation summarised in an email.  In many cases this is because people want to ‘cover their backs’ by getting things in writing.  My suggestion is that you politely refuse but instead offer them the opportunity to confirm their understanding of the conversation in an email to you.  If they want to then so be it, but at least it is then not you wasting your time.

Conclusion
In many organisations email has moved from being a blessing to a curse.  The obvious solution is for senior management to address the issue, but unless employees highlight the issue this is unlikely to happen. So why not be the person to begin the debate?

About the Author
Alistair Schofield is Managing Director of Extensor Limited.